The SDSU Aztecs at the quarter mark of the season

Credit: SDSU

Credit: SDSU Athletics

One of the beauties of college football is the magnification of each game due to its short season.

With only eight regular-season games, seven of which count in the race for a conference title, each game in 2020 carries with even more weight. There is little time for adjustments, and with each bowl game canceled, one loss could be the difference between regret and the postseason. San Diego State is 2-0 on the season. These two wins represent a quarter of the season. Below are what we have learned and questions to watch during the second quarter of the season.

What We Have Learned

Running Back U has produced its next elite tailback.

His name is Greg Bell. Bell ranks third in the NCAA in rushing with 134 yards per game. His patience to allow the play to develop and then his ability to hit the hole is electric. Tailbacks at this level are all talented, but what separates the good from the great is vision. Through a quarter of the season, Bell’s vision has led to numerous spectacular runs. In typical Aztec fashion, Bell credited his teammates with his performance, “It starts upfront. Our offensive line is doing a great job, and the receivers and tight ends are doing a great job blocking for us. We’re just going out there running.”

The offensive line is the strength of the team.

On Monday, Coach Hoke said, “The offensive line is my favorite group on the whole football team. I make no bones about it as a head coach even though I’m a defensive line coach by trade. I love those guys because we’ll be a good football team if we’re good upfront. … the guys on the offensive line they never get talked about. They never get the awards, but I’m really happy with how Zach (Thomas) and Kyle Spalding have gone to work every day.” Pro Football Focus, which ranks every offensive line in the country, had SDSU as the top offensive line for the week after their performance against Utah State. SDSU leads the nation in rushing yards per game, but it has been in pass protection where this line has separated itself from units in the past. The big boys up front have only allowed two sacks and four QB hurries this season.

There will be no set back on defense.

SDSU’s defense currently ranks first in the country, giving up only 6.5 points per game. The team plays fast, physical, and most of the Power Five schools would gladly do a straight swap of their defense for the one that plays on the Mesa. In two games, the depth of the Aztecs has been evident. Trenton Thompson, fresh off a terrific game against UNLV that included a punt block, injured his ankle and was unavailable against Utah State. His replacement at the Warrior position, Tayler Hawkins, led the defense in tackles and was a force throughout the game. Kurt Mattix has seamlessly replaced Rocky Long thus far as the defensive play-caller.

Questions for the Second Quarter of the Season

Has the early domination by the Aztecs been fool’s gold?

A tourist treasure in the heart of Old Town is the Mormon Battalion Museum. After winding your way through a creative re-enactment of the Battalion’s participation in the Mexican-America War, patrons get to try their hand at mining for gold. Sifting through tiny pebbles, small shiny pieces of fool’s gold emerge. The wins, thus far, suggest the Aztecs should be among the favorites to reach the Mountain West title, but it is possible the futility of their opponents had more to do with the lopsided victories than the skill of the Scarlet and Black. The games in this second quarter should provide a better idea of just how good SDSU is. San Jose State and Hawaii have a .750 combined winning percentage. UNLV and Utah State have not won a game in 2020; they have been outscored by a combined 151-45. Have the two dominant victories been solid gold, or will they make our present excitement and calls for inclusion in the Top 25 appear foolish.

Credit: SDSU

What is the identity of Jeff Hecklinski’s Offense?

The stated goal coming into the season was to be more balanced on offense. Through two games that has yet to materialize, though. SDSU has about a 2-1 run to pass ratio. Certainly, two lopsided wins contributed to the 99 rushing attempts compared to 52 passing attempts, but a deeper look may suggest SDSU is – and should be – favoring its ground game.  SDSU is averaging a pedestrian 5.8 yards per passing attempt while averaging a staggering 7.0 yards per rushing attempt. There has been plenty of explosive plays in the run game but few in the passing game. Potentially more telling of a shift to match his personal, Hecklinski came out favoring the pass against Utah State, only rushing the ball 10 times in the first four possessions. From the 4th possession on, a pass was called only six times. Rocky Long once joked former SDSU Offensive Coordinator, Bob Toledo, would get offended if too many rushing plays were called in a row. Hecklinski, like his immediate predecessor, Jeff Horton, does not seem to share Toledo’s disposition. Will SDSU strive for balance on offense, or will they depend more on their powerful running game?

How good can this defense be?

There are not enough superlatives for the performance of this Aztec defense. They look bigger, stronger, faster, and more intense than any in recent memory. They are playing with gratitude, knowing that Covid could cut the season short at any moment. They are getting contributions from a myriad of players. Particularly encouraging is the play of the defensive line rotation. Star returners Keshawn Banks and Cameron Thomas have each flashed playmaking ability at key moments to justify their preseason accolades. A former 4-star recruit, sophomore Kahi Neves, has jumped in admirably into a starting role. Substitutes Jonah Tavai and Connor Mitchel have been producing like starters. The defensive line has been credited with 20 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and four sacks. Production upfront is what has the potential to separate the 2020 Aztecs defense from the other dominant defenses in program history. In previous teams, there was often a noticeable drop off when the starters on the defensive line went out for a rest. This year’s team is getting production from its first and second units. With the defensive line dominating, the linebackers and the secondary have been free to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. It makes wonder: Could this defense be the best in Aztec history?

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Paul Garrison
My earliest sport's memory involve tailgating at the Murph, running down the circular exit ramps, and seeing the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs play. As a second generation Aztec, I am passionate about all things SDSU. Other interests include raising my four children, being a great husband and teaching high school.
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